How to identify female or male Bhutanese names?

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Organizational Psychologist Joyce E. A. Russell observed, “A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person.”

A name is an identifier we are sealed with as soon as we are born, which we will take to our graves. Names are used to identify us as individuals and indicate our gender. 

In most cultures, a surname, family name or last name made up part of a person's full name to indicate their family lineage. Bhutanese names, however, do not include a family name, except for royal lineages. At least not until recently. With global exposure, it has become increasingly trendy for parents to use their father’s name as their 'last name'. 

Bhutanese names are generally given fortuitously by lamas (priests). 

Until the 1990s, most Bhutanese had only a single name. The single names commonly used then were mostly gender-neutral, like Nima, Dawa, Karma, Sonam, Chhimi, Phurpa, Lhakpa, etc. 

Characteristics and meanings

Babies were usually named based on the days of the week they were born: Nima for someone born on Saturday, Dawa for someone born on Sunday because these were Dzongkha words for the days, and so on. 

In the villages, sometimes babies are named after the colour of their complexion! Nalaypem or Nalem for a girl and Nala for a boy who is comparatively dark-skinned, and Kado for a fair-skinned boy.

Evolution from just one name to two names

Assuming that calling people by single names created confusion, Bhutanese resorted to using two names. At this age, mainly the second name marks a person's gender. 

Most Bhutanese can instinctively identify the gender by the masculinity or femininity of the sound of their names. 

However, there can be few exceptions to it. When a family has witnessed a few deaths of a male child, they might give a female name to the next boy born in the family or vice versa to avert the curse of death in the family. 

How can you identify the gender of a Bhutanese person by name and save yourself from the embarrassment with the wrong Mr. or Ms. salutation?

Here’s a look at some of the common Bhutanese names associated with one's gender. 

1. Single Name 

Gender-neutral names

Below are common gender-neutral single names that can be either male or female: Sonam, Karma, Dawa, Phurpa, Chhimi, Tshering, Tashi, Pema, Tandin, Ugyen, Kinley, Jigme, Sangay.  

Common male names (single name)

Wangda, Dorji, Tobgay, Penjor, Leki would usually be a male. 

Common female names (single name)

Deki, Lhaki, Dechen, Yangki, Wangmo, Zangmo, Bidha, Lhamo, Choden would be a female. 

 2. Two Names

It's easier to identify the gender of a person if they have two names as the second name usually gives away the gender of a person. If a person has two names, there is no surefire way for you to know their gender just by their first name. So you need to know their full name to identify whether they are male or female.

Common male names (two names)

Sonam Dorji, Tashi Tobgay, Namgay Wangchuk, Karma Leki, Namgay Thinley, Tshering Penjor, etc. Notice that the second names are usually names used for males.

Common female names (two names)

Dechen Zangmo, Chhimi Wangmo, Sonam Yangchen, Sonam Choden, Tashi Dema, Karma Lhamo, etc. The second name is usually a female name.

3. More than two names / using of father's or husband's name

What if you come across trendy names that are more than a combination of two or, in most cases, having attached a husband’s or father’s name? Look to see if any of the handful names are commonly used for male or female. 

For a female, even if the first name is neutral and the last name is a masculine one, there is always one from the three that is specific only to females (Deki, Yangchen, Lhamo, Choden, etc). It’s not foolproof, but you get it right most of the time. 

For a male with more than two names, no one name shall be from the list of female names. So you can easily identify as long as you remember the common masculine and feminine names above. 

However, more people adopt fancy and unique name combinations for themselves or their children in recent times. 

In imitation of foreign practices, many women attach their father’s or husband’s second name to their names. This has made identifying gender with the second name trickier since, as stated earlier, Bhutanese first names are mostly gender-neutral.

Joyce E. A. Russell also said, “It is a sign of courtesy…When someone remembers our name after meeting us, we feel respected and more important.” No one likes being addressed wrongly. And knowing a person beyond their name help to build social cohesion. 

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by another name, would smell as sweet.



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